Nowadays it’s hard to imagine visual artwork without text —most artists rely on the representation of writing in many of their creations, or in all of them. Text has, without a doubt, become part of the dominant current of contemporary art.
However, not so long ago, writing was a peculiar, very limited element in the visual arts, and the use of text as a recurrent element has been delayed for many centuries. In the 1st century BC, Horace already equated the importance of poetry and painting with his famous sentence “Ut pictura poesis,” which has been repeated as a mantra by many artists throughout the centuries. Renaissance artists didn’t think writing was an unimportant issue, but they considered it an element distinct from image¹; that is to say, they were two very different disciplines that barely intersected.Text was present in visual arts, of course, but in a very superficial and secondary way, never as the core of the work. It normally appeared in works in the signature or to resolve any possible ambiguity; this is, to document the works verbally². Thus, the insertion of writing in art wasn’t at all gradual, instead suddenly entering the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the many avant-garde movements which incorporated a variety materials and elements in their creations, including text.
The importance of written expression in visual arts became paramount in the 1960s. In this decade, many conceptual artists dedicated themselves to text-based art, including Joseph Kosuth, Yoko Ono and On Kawara, whose works were quickly welcomed into museums and galleries. These works can’t be considered literature, but rather artists’ texts, since they hang on or are attached to the walls, or are painted or printed on or attached to a canvas.
Joseph Kosuth (USA, 1945) produced artworks in an intensively metalinguistic way, openly rejecting formalism and aesthetic limitations. His first and most famous work relating to semantics, One and Three Chairs, questions the reality of representations using Saussure’s theory of linguistic signs as a reference. Three elements are presented: a photograph of a chair (the signifier or image), a real chair (the signified or object), and the definition of the word “chair” (the sign, combination of concept and acoustic image)4. In consequence, this work of art reflects deeply on the nature of reality. Maybe the real chair (the object called a chair) is indeed a chair, but no one can sit on that chair —as an art piece— and isn’t the essence of a chair that it is sat upon? Maybe the image actually shows the real chair — someone could actually sit on what it represents, although not on the photograph. Maybe the linguistic sign, the definition, is the real chair, after all, since it encompasses all possible chairs. Maybe none of them are; but maybe, and most likely, a chair is the combination of signifier, signified and sign. This ultimately leads to the philosophical query: what is “real”?
Since then, Kosuth has experimented with and given form to these kinds of thoughts about semantics and reality, painting dictionary definitions of words on canvas, like «meaning,” “language” or “definition” itself, and also representing colors and materials with words (instead of with the actual colors and materials). He has even made different versions of his works using foreign languages in an ultraliguistic search. Through all these experiments, he ultimately hopes to bring about the collapse of traditional art forms5.
Yoko Ono (Japan, 1933) inserted text in visual art with a different objective. She wrote many lists of instructions for the general public, so that they will perform acts which combine art with domestic life. Here is one example of such instructions:
PAINTING TO BE STEPPED ON
Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting
on the floor or in the street.
1960 winter 6
This writing exhorts a tiny rebellion against one of the most respected —and traditional— materials in art, the canvas. This shows how words are not only a key element of conceptual art, but can prove superior to the unquestionable might of painting.
Of course, Ono doesn’t seek to kill painting, but to use it in a different way. In Painting in Three Stanzas, the artist describes the idea of the work by writing a text in Japanese on the entire canvas, composing a kind of visual poem. The visual work is not created, but the viewer —the reader— will create it in their own mind. Thus, text leads to infinite possibility, since ultimately each imagination paints it in a different way. This implicates a new method of representation through language, since the text serves not to limit, but to liberate.
On Kawara (1933, Japan – 2014, USA) used text as the most important visual component of his productions. This mysterious creator, who worked anonymously starting in the 1960s, built an entire whole manifesto of existentialism through the visual representation of writing. In his work, words and numbers are more than text, they’re visual elements, physical objects full of meaning. His most dedicated and long-lasting series reflect the agony of the passage of time through words and numbers. He worked directly with text-based materials in I Read and I Went, adding notes and comments to newspapers and maps. He also sent postcards and telegrams, with I Got Up and I Am Still Alive, which evoke a wave of existentialism with endless repetition of the same words. In I Met, he wrote what he defined as international poems —a list of the people he talked to every single day, turning words into a globally understandable expression of art. Today should be seen as one of the greatest examples of text in visual arts.
In this series, Kawara painted the date of the current day, finishing the entire work before midnight, or else throwing it out and starting over. The depiction is very minimalistic, made with astonishing machine-like precision, following a ritualistic process that he considered a form of meditation. Since the date is the sole element in the work, the artist reveals his life and his present, and the inevitable passage of time. In these projects, text is no longer merely a testimonial sign, but has become the soul of the visual artwork, not longer an accessory or literature, but art in itself .
In the decades that followed, many artists produced fascinating text-centered works, such as the series Variable Piece, by Douglas Huebler, Jenny Holzer and her Truisms, and Lorna Simpson’s huge oeuvre. Nowadays, many artists are continuing down this path, and contemporary art museums are full of artwork with written content. The pioneer conceptual artists left an undeniable legacy for 21st century artists —pictura and poesis are intertwined for good.
ALPERS, Svetlana. The Art of Describing (1987). 1
ALPERS, Svetlana. The Art of Describing (1987). 2
HARRISON, Charles. Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language (2001). 3
SAUSSURE, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (1945). 4
KOSUTH, Joseph. Joseph Kosuth: No Exit (1991). 5
ONO, Yoko. Grapefruit (1964). 6
HARRISON, Charles. Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language (2001). 7